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Kai Kresse

Thought and Practice and the Kenyan Experience

Report on the 6th Annual Conference of the International Society for African Philosophy and Studies

Thought and Practice in African Philosophy
6th Annual Conference of the International Society for African Philosophy and Studies
March 10-12, 2000
University of Nairobi

International Society for African Philosophy and Studies (ISAPS)
Department of Philosophy
Loyola University
6525 N. Sheridan Road
Chicago, IL 60626

Department of Philosophy
University of Nairobi
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  The Sixth Annual Conference of the International Society of African Philosophy and Studies (ISAPS) took place on March 10-12 in Nairobi. The society was founded in the United States, and this was the first of its conferences to take place on African soil. There were more than sixty participants, with speakers from Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Germany, and the USA. The presentations were organized into the following topical sub-sections: intercultural philosophy, the future of African philosophy, feminism, multiple perspectives in African philosophy, constitution making in Africa, philosophy and religion, sage philosophy, and ethics and politics. This means that an enormous breadth of issues was covered, an indicator of the current wealth of philosophical topics dealt with in Africa. Due to this wide scope of diverse topics, however, the conference did not provide a forum for a progressive in-depth discussion on any specific issue; a plurality of voices and a multiplicity of approaches to various philosophical problems in the African context characterized this conference. The conference title "Thought and practice in African philosophy" alluded to the well-known journal Thought and Practice that the Philosophy Department of the University of Nairobi produced in the late 1970s. Hopefully, the success of this conference will encourage a revival of this publication for the new millenium.


  Opening addresses were given by dignitaries of the University of Nairobi, and the Kenyan dons combined their welcome speeches with supportive enthusiasm for the existence and the further development of such institutionalized academic networks on African philosophy. Then, the president of ISAPS, the Nigerian Olufemi Taiwo, introduced and characterized the society's aims, naming a larger membership of African citizens and a stronger African footing as one of ISAPS's main objectives.


  The keynote address that followed, by Heinrich Beck (University of Bamberg, Germany), focused on the necessity for Western philosophy to be become more open and receptive to non-European traditions of philosophical thought, especially from Africa. Beck sketched out an apparent cul-de-sac of modern Western philosophy whose over-emphatic rationalistic impetus continuously neglects issues of spirituality, moral engagement, and cross-cultural understanding. According to Beck, it is now time for Western philosophy to listen and learn from other traditions, with the goal of a healthy synthesis influenced by a variety of regional traditions of philosophical thought. Beck's address was followed by two accounts of Afrocentric movements that act as a counter force against an intellectual Eurocentric global hegemony. G.E.M. Ogutu (University of Nairobi) described the challenge of the 'African Renaissance' for African philosophy, while Jeffrey Crawford (Central State University, Ohio) examined features of the 'Africana philosophy'.

The presentations were organized into the following topical sub-sections:

intercultural philosophy

the future of African philosophy

multiple perspectives in African philosophy

constitution making in Africa

philosophy and religion

sage philosophy

and ethics and politics



  The sessions mentioned above took place one after another, thus all participants were able to attend and discuss all papers that were presented. This was helpful in regard to a fertile exchange of views and further contacts amongst the participants. With 40-50 participants inn constant attendance, the conference was well balanced so that everyone could make contact with everybody else. And in spite of the stress of organizing, Gail Presbey and further members of the local organizing committee managed wonderfully to facilitate social dinners (and a great farewell celebration on the last night) where the exchanges and discussions continued.


  The conference offered opportunity for presentations on basically any topic and sub-field within African philosophy, as reflected in the wide variety of papers given. Many presentations were of interdisciplinary character, drawing on African literature, political theory, development studies, anthropology, and religious studies for philosophical discussions and the development of wider theoretical arguments.


  For instance, featuring prominently in a number of papers was the project of sage philosophy, taken as the documention philosophical thinking in Africa. One presentation used the approach to formulate criteria for securing people's livelihood (Chaungo Barasa, Kenya), while another attempted to expand sage philosophy methodology from a perspective of literary theory (Kavetsa Adagala, Kenya). Other papers linked the project of sage philosophy to issues of conflict resolution (Bekele Gutema, Ethiopia), political debate in Kenya (Peter Ogola Onyango, Kenya), or socio-musicological issues of an "African Music Continuum" (Charles Moore, USA). The last paper was started off with a fascinating trumpet solo by the presenter, whose complex and illuminating verbal presentation dwelt on the socially reflexive capacities of central features of African and African-American music.


  Thus much of the discussion made reference to the work of the deceased Henry Odera Oruka, the founder of the sage philosophy project, who taught at the University of Nairobi for more than two decades before his untimely death in 1995. Oruka was one of the African philosophers discussed in detail – others were Senghor and Wiredu – while most papers attempted to challenge specific problems within the African life-world or in the sphere of systematic theory building. To name some examples, Helen Oduk (Kenyatta University, Nairobi) discussed an African perspective of feminist philosophy, while Claude Sumner (University of Addis Ababa) presented his account of a progressive development in acknowledging equality of the sexes in written philosophical texts in Ethiopia before 1900. Pamela Abuya (Moi University) discussed the theoretical and practical challenges for democracy in Africa.

African Philosophy at the Threshold of the New Millennium
7th Annual Conference
March 9-11, 2001
Addis Ababa University
Call for Papers


  In regard to development in Africa, both Daniel Smith (University of Cape Coast, Ghana) and Gail Presbey (University of Nairobi) presented original theoretical discussions, while Workinah Kelbessa (University of Addis Ababa) sketched out the possibility of partnership between 'indigenous' and 'modern' environmental ethics in reference to the concrete context of the Oromo society in Ethiopia. Smith focused on criticizing the influential pragmatist approach to development, and he unveiled its implicit ideological stance of supporting existant power relations before making a case for a new vision of development constructed by regionalized democratic processes in Africa. In discussion however, the issue of pragmatism as confirming status quo was contentious. Jay van Hook (University of Central Florida) defended a pragmatist position which had also been at the basis of his own paper, making the case for surmounting essentialism to attain a new, constructive phase in African philosophy. Gail Presbey critically discussed Oruka's principle of a universal right to an 'ethical miminum' as the basis for foreign aid. Then, with reference to Oruka and the Nigerian philosopher Gbadegesin, she reformulated a recommendable approach and pointed out possible contributions of African philosophical thought to issues of development.


  Furthermore, a detailed historical study of the arguments and processes within the formulation of a constitution in 19th century Nigeria was presented by Olufemi Taiwo (Loyola University, Chicago). Okoth Okombo (University of Nairobi) also gave a highly entertaining and insightful linguistic analysis of the key metaphors used in the current debate on the constitutional review in Kenya.

Kai Kresse
teaches African Philosophy and Social Theory at SOAS, University of London, where he is currently writing up his PhD-thesis.


  The large number of participants from Kenya, and the strong attendance of Kenyan students was impressive and encouraging, as was the audiences lively engagement in the discussions that followed the papers. It indicates that philosophical debate in the academic sphere has a strong and lively footing in Kenya, and that it is followed with interest and enthusiasm. Good attendance throughout the conference underlined this. These facts also rooted the conference and its discussions in the Kenyan context. In this way at least, Kenya certainly left a positive mark on the visiting participants from other parts of Africa and the world.


  Surely, the publication of the proceedings of this conference in the near future is something to look forward to, as well as the next upcoming ISAPS conference which will take place in Addis Ababa next spring.

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